Ms. Shear plays Giulia, an art restorer who has developed and practiced the most advanced techniques available for cleaning sculptures without damaging them. However, her abrasive personality has lost her clients, and she has been reduced to working in a windowless garage. The professor who was her mentor through college and beyond (Alan Mandell) visits and offers her a chance to restore her career. He is advising the Accademia in Florence on the preservation of its prized possession, Michelangelo's sculpture of David, and he believes that Guilia's work will fit the museum's needs. Past restorations have been judged to have damaged the structural integrity of the marble, and museum authorities wish to be cautious to do no further harm. Of course, there's a deadline for completion: the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the statue's completion.
Giulia meets with the museum representatives and they are both impressed by her methods and her commitment to a timely finish. They waiver over her abrasive personal style, but in the end are convinced by Guilia's assurances that she will be cooperative.
Giulia is a strong woman whose loneliness nevertheless lies just below the surface. As she begins work on the statue, now covered with scaffolding (a clever and ingenious scenic design by Scott Pask, perhaps the best I've seen for the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum stage), Max (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), the room's security guard, senses her vulnerability and immediately seeks to exploit it for his own advantage. The museum brass (Natalija Nogulich and Kate Shindle) interrupt the work for their own purposes. Even Beatrice (Ms. Nogulich again), the cleaning lady, seems jealous that Giulia is cleaning the part of the room that she can't touch.
Giulia throws herself into her work, but at times she can't help noticing that she is caring for what has been called the most perfect representation of a man in existence. She resists the temptation to respond in kind to the staff's annoyances, and in time she comes to learn more about them and to appreciate them. The David changes as well under her care, not just cleaner but somehow stronger, less fragile, reflecting Giulia's own transformation.
The slightness of the story is more than compensated for by Ms. Shear's eloquent and fully formed writing. The one-hour-forty-minute, no intermission, running time goes by quickly and rarely drags, even if progress, both on the statue's and on Julia's restoration, goes slowly.
Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, who commissioned Restoration on behalf of the La Jolla Playhouse, has directed this world premiere production with finesse and a greater degree of sensitivity than I've seen previously in his work. The strong cast members and equally strong design team all have Broadway credits, and the production seems to have been planned with an eye to move it to New York. While there could be some smoothing out, elimination of a bit of repetition, and beefing up of Ms. Shindle's character, which is currently too underwritten for the audience to care enough about her when we are called on to do so, Restoration exhibits a surprising maturity for a first production.
Restoration, with performances through July 19 in the Mandell Weiss Forum on the La Jolla Playhouse campus. Tickets: $30-$65, at (858) 550-1010, or at the La Jolla Playhouse website.
The La Jolla Playhouse presents a world premiere commission: Restoration, written by Claudia Shear, directed by Christopher Ashley. With Alan Mandell, Natalija Nogulich, Daniel Serafini-Sauli, Claudia Shear, and Kate Shindle. Scenic Designer Scott Pask, Costume Designer David C. Woolard, Lighting Designer David Lander, Composer and Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier, Projection Designer Kristin Ellert, Wig Designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer.